Child’s Play…Off the Playground
Ready or not, here I come…with some thoughts that I believe are worth sharing. As a behavior therapist who has also been a teacher for over two decades, I have a unique perspective. More often than not, therapists aren’t teachers and vice versa. My dual lenses, however, have afforded me the opportunity to see things through the eyes of a child as well as through those of a parent. The conclusion I’ve drawn after years of observing divorced parents battle over how best to parent their children is that, in many cases, the conflicts on the playground are navigated more civilly, more respectfully and frankly, more maturely, than those between co-parents. In other words, the communication between co-parents can often look more like child’s play than what is observed on a playground full of bickering, tattling school kids. Clearly this isn’t earth shattering news. Divorced parents have been duking it out for eons. The reason it’s worth mentioning, however, is because I see firsthand the irreversible damage this incessant battling does post-divorce to the children that parents are presumably trying to protect…and the long term consequences ain’t pretty. The finger pointing, insulting, blaming, shaming, and constant below-the-belt blows are a great way to guarantee that nobody will come out unscathed (and the children are WELL aware of your battle despite your best efforts to conceal your anger. Trust me. They tell me often.) So herein lies the single most important question: What’s your objective?
Want to Reduce Conflict? Get Clear on Objectives and Desired Outcomes
The most effective way I know to reduce the hostility is to be clear on your objective before initiating communication with your ex. If you establish the purpose of contact, you at least stand the chance of staying on course and hopefully can hold yourself accountable to do so (because no one else will) . It’s a slippery slope, however, to simply set an objective and then launch into contact. For example, one might set an objective to “email about therapy for Sally Sue” and then compose a scathing email about how Sally Sue needs therapy because “you really screwed her up when you left.” And so begins the blaming, shaming, name-calling child’s play. This is why establishing desired outcomes of the communication is so important. If you want to find a therapist for your child and you desire an outcome that results in you and your co-parent working together to find one…then make no mistake that any amount of child’s play will quickly derail the conversation, leaving your objective and desired outcome unmet. The irony is that parents can usually manage difficult exchanges amongst children very successfully but somehow can’t seem to pump the breaks when communicating with their ex. We get in our own way over and over and over again. An easy rule of thumb when you communicating with your co-parent?
Compose your communication in such a way that you would be absolutely comfortable with other people reading the exchange.
- Get clear on the objective/purpose of your communication. Be honest with yourself. If you are feeling like cutting your ex down to size, go for a run or call a friend. Do not initiate communication when you can’t be certain you won’t slip.
- Decide on the desired outcome. You are contacting your co-parent for a reason. What do you want the communication to yield? There is no room for child’s play when you are clear on positive outcomes for your kids.
- Make no mistake that kids sense conflict. They know when parents aren’t communicating in healthy and productive ways. Get familiar with the long term consequences on children before you make a decision about initiating anything but positive communication.
- Get support. If you can’t get clear enough to be productive, seek support from a professional who can help navigate/facilitate communication.
- Get out of your own way!